Nice to see you. Today, if you hadn’t already guessed courtesy of the clue I gave you last time and the title of today’s installment, we’re going to be discussing the NES Zapper. Certain members of our audience may have fond memories of using this device, perhaps involving a nice round of Duck Hunt. Maybe you still wonder, though, how did it work?


Well, to begin with, let me just get this out of the way: the Zapper doesn’t actually fire anything. If you think about it, if it did fire something, how would it work? You’re firing on a television screen that is not equipped to detect any sort of “emission” from the gun, let alone send information about that emission to the console. That said, the television is very well-equipped to release its own “emissions.” That was the key to making this device work.


When a shot is fired, a signal is sent to the console that causes the screen to go entirely black for just a single frame. Apparently, this allows time for the Zapper to actually warm-up its photodiode. On the next frame, while most of the screen remains black, a valid target is replaced with a white rectangle. In the event that there are multiple valid targets, each one gets replaced with a rectangle individually in sequence. If the photodiode in the Zapper detects that it is pointing at one of the white rectangles (courtesy of the change in light intensity compared to the black screen elsewhere) that means that you have scored a valid hit. The fact that each target is illuminated during its own frame allows the system to determine which target you hit. And to think that all of this is done in fractions of a second!


I know, the technical explanation didn’t take that long today, but it’s really a pretty simple peripheral. Don’t worry, I’m not ready to leave just yet. Instead, I think I’ll use the remainder of today’s installment to discuss what I would call a rather unusual member of the Zapper game library.


I’m referring to Gumshoe. Released for the NES in 1986, this platformer (yes, you read that correctly) places you in the shoes of a detective who receives a notice that his daughter has been kidnapped, and that a ransom is being demanded for her.


The controls are pretty simple (as you would probably expect considering that the Zapper has only one button). Shooting your character will cause him to jump, and you can continue to shoot him to cause him to jump progressively higher. You must also shoot the enemies in your way to destroy them. However, I will say that just because the control scheme is simple does not mean that the game is. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself facing a situation where you need to shoot things ahead of you, but also need to keep jumping in order to clear a gap. Also, keep in mind that the Zapper is treated as having limited ammunition. Firing shots to cause jumps doesn’t deplete your reserves, but firing on enemies does (although, you can gain more rounds by jumping into balloons). Also, unusually, the game ends not with you taking down the kidnappers, but with you voluntarily paying the ransom (which, apparently, involved stealing diamonds from at least one location; not to mention that it’s all for nothing because, to facilitate repeating gameplay, your daughter is kidnapped again shortly thereafter).


Is it a bit of an odd game? I would certainly say so. That said, it certainly has its own appeal. It was able to showcase at least a small amount of versatility for the gun probably most-often associated with hunting virtual ducks.   


I’m glad you decided to stop by today. Next time, we’ll be taking a look at something that I actually hesitate to call a peripheral (it was built into the system), but which I feel still fits into the same overall group as the rest of the hardware that we’ve been looking at. Okay, I know what you’re waiting for. Your clue this time is: it allowed parts of our games to really enter our world.


I’ll be here…


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